Typhoon #18 is roaring up from the south Pacific toward Himi, the small fishing village on the Sea of Japan where I am staying at Umiakari, an onsen (hot springs) hotel. Waves pound the windswept coast. The fast-moving sky is low and gray. I am supposed to go out on a boat tomorrow to watch the famed fisherman of Himi ply their trade, but we may be grounded by weather.
Few Western tourists come to Himi, although it’s heavily touristed by the Japanese who come for the fish. Perhaps nowhere else in Japan can you get the variety and quality of fresh seafood year round. The Japanese come to eat fish and for the spectacular views over the big water of Toyama Bay to the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps that rise over 10,000 feet from the narrow coastal plain.
I saw many photos of this magnificent panorama, of which the people of Himi are justifiably proud, but I never got see the scene itself. When I woke during the night, snug in my futon on tatami, I heard rain slashing the windowpanes. The next morning at 4:30 a.m., I padded in yukata and slippers through silent halls to the spring fed pool on a fourth floor terrace. There was an indoor and outdoor pool and both were lined with stone.
I washed myself thoroughly, squatting on a plastic stool in front of a chest high spigot that filled shallow plastic tub with warm water that I splashed over my head and body again and again. Squeaky clean, I walked out a steamy glass door into stormy predawn. Rain pelted my face. Wave after wave broke below. Dim lights signaled the curve of the coast. I faced west toward the Continent. The water was very hot, up to my neck, and I was all alone. Wind and rain ruffled the steaming surface of the pool. Water tricked in from a stone shoot and sloshed out over an indentation in the pool’s lip. Water was constantly coming into the pool and going out. I leaned back. The country was a country of water. We had passed river after river, traveling south to Himi along the coast. This was the route the bullet train from Tokyo would run next spring when it opened up this coast and the mountainous interior: the folded land, the further north, the back of the beyond. Hokuriku was rich in hot springs. More of them were here than anywhere else in Japan. The Western Sea tumbled at my feet. The country was a country of water, fresh and salt, snowmelt and thermal. It was country of moving water and fish and restorative bathing. No matter what happened, how difficult things got, there was always the steaming water to slip into. It was so simple and available—the ultimate luxury. I breathed in the steam and squall. My body felt sleek, almost buoyant. The water had a texture to it, a silkiness and substance that with traces of earth and was both vegetal and mineral. It heated my core. The rain that whipped into my face and hair felt lifted from the Sea. It was cool but not cold, and it was delicious to wallow in the molten broth with my face and head cooled by the storm.
When I left the bath, gray light was coming up in the heavy sky where the mountains would have been.
To continue onto part two of this story, click here.
By Kenneth Wapner
TOP PHOTO: © 2014 Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association